50 years later, Teaneck recalls school integration movement

By AARON MORRISON, Staff Writer (The Record)

On her first day of sixth grade at Teaneck’s William Bryant School, Charelle Hanley’s mother surprised her by picking out a red sweater to wear and fussing over how she looked.

“As she’s buttoning the top button my mother says to me, ‘The eyes of the nation are watching you,’ ” Hanley said. “And I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is she talking about?’

“The impact of it didn’t strike me. In my mind, I was just going to school,” Hanley recalled of that early September day 50 years ago when Teaneck became the first community in America to vote to desegregate its schools — in this case, by busing students from all parts of the city to a new, centralized sixth grade.

It was the township’s way of warding off de facto segregation in its neighborhood elementary schools because the neighborhoods themselves had become more and more racially unbalanced.

Ten years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown vs. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, the nation was still struggling to turn the decision into reality. In Arkansas, the first black students to integrate a high school — the Little Rock Nine — had to be escorted by soldiers past a seething mob.

But Teaneck was no Little Rock; one TV camera was all that greeted Hanley and the other 11- and 12-year-olds at the entrance to William Bryant School.

Teaneck had one high school and it already was integrated. But even as the number of minorities in the town had increased, discriminatory housing practices had steered blacks to the northeast section and whites to other areas, accounts at the time said.

Against that backdrop, at the urging of a coalition of white and black residents, the district Board of Education voted 7-2 on May 13, 1964, to have children of all races attend sixth grade in one school.

In so doing, Teaneck set itself apart from every city, town and community in America by not waiting for a court to order students bused out of their neighborhoods to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Decades later, Teaneck’s longtime residents, including the activists who fought for integration and the first students to attend sixth grade together, still marvel at the accomplishment and take pride in being trailblazers, even as some question what that legacy has become. Teaneck’s public school students are primarily minorities today, with some residents sending their children to private schools, many for religious reasons.

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More stories:

Teaneck remembers the day it led the war on racism” — May 12, 2014

Diversity elusive in Teaneck schools” — June 1, 2014

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